Often overlooked, Gibbs was Yale’s great chemist

Chemistry professor Jonathan Parr makes it a point to spend some time in his CHEM 114 general chemistry class lecturing on “the least well-known person from the 1800s who deserves to be well-known.”

Though this title could be applied to a great number of 19th century thinkers, Yale students passing through Science Hill can find Parr’s answer in the name of a building: the Josiah Willard Gibbs Laboratory.

“He should be particularly important to Yalies because he was a Yalie,” Parr said.

Gibbs, Class of 1858, is credited with unifying a mass of facts and discoveries to form the foundation for the branch of chemistry that investigates the relationship between heat and chemical reactions, called thermochemistry or chemical thermodynamics. His concept of free energy, now referred to as “Gibbs free energy,” is essential for determining outcomes of certain reactions.

“Gibbs is as important in chemistry as Einstein is in physics,” said chemistry professor Narasimhan Ganapathi, who also lectured on Gibbs in CHEM 116L, the lab course for general chemistry.

Gibbs’ father, Yale Divinity School professor Josiah Willard Gibbs Sr., Class of 1809, was an abolitionist who located a translator for the Amistad trial by learning to count to 10 in the slaves’ African language and then calling out the numbers in New York City until he found someone who could understand and translate them.

Gibbs himself, like approximately 1 percent of today’s Yale undergraduate population, attended New Haven’s Hopkins School, the second-oldest secondary school in the United States. He graduated from Yale close to the top of his class and went on to receive Yale and the United States’s first doctorate in engineering. Broadly talented, he received prizes in Latin and mathematics, was a professor of mathematical physics at Yale and spent his later years immersed in optics and vector analysis. With the exception of three intellectually formative years spent in Europe, Gibbs spent his entire life in the Elm City.

In the vein of Van Gogh, Gibbs’ immense contributions were slow to be recognized. In part, this was Gibbs’ own doing, as his dense findings were published in the obscure journal “Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences,” making them difficult both to decipher and to discover.

Even among Yale students and faculty, Gibbs’ genius went unrecognized. During the 19th century, American universities emphasized classics over science, and students took little interest in his classes. Meanwhile, his colleagues were mostly wrapped up in practical questions rather than the theoretical work Gibbs did.

But though his work was grounded in theory, its applications are highly practical. For instance, Parr said, his ideas were critical to the development of machinery in the Industrial Revolution.

“It’s sad, really, because what he did was applied and useful,” said Parr. “He really does have an effect on our lives.”

Gibbs did not receive the Nobel Prize — it was not created until after his death. He was, however, awarded the most prestigious medal of the time, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom. Today, Gibbs’ pensive profile can be seen pasted onto postage stamps, issued in May 2005, that commemorate American scientists.

Yet Gibbs himself shunned the glamorous existence his genius could have afforded him and lived the remainder of his life quietly in his childhood home with his sister and brother-in-law, the Yale librarian. He was content strolling around New Haven’s streets and inspiring his few devoted proteges, such as the economist Irving Fisher.

And Gibbs’ legacy continues to be a quiet one, even in his hometown. Though Yale has both a building and the J. Willard Gibbs Professorship in Theoretical Chemistry named after him, Gibbs’ name and legacy have not seeped into the vernacular as much as Einstein’s have.

“He’s one of those guys who is incredibly important to a small number of people and unimportant to the rest of the world,” Parr said.

Ganapathi said Gibbs’ accomplishments and admirable character stimulate his own research.

“It boosts my morale to know that I’m working in the same facility as Gibbs,” Ganapathi said.

Perhaps Yale’s struggling future scientists will also be motivated by knowing that Gibbs too was forced to haul himself out of bed in the morning to make the trek up Science Hill.

“I don’t know if I would call what I’m doing following in Gibbs’ footsteps,” said Jonathan Amatruda ’09, who graduated from the Hopkins School in 2005. “But if I were following in his footsteps, I would be very inspired.”

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